Posts Tagged ‘garden’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

September 22, 2010


Today was the fall equinox, the balance point between our season of extravagant light and the introspective dark of winter. Tonight, as I write this, the moon hangs full in the southern sky over the Tanana Flats, just above a bright speck of planet low to the horizon. For the last few weeks, we’ve had warm, even hot days, gradually cooling to the high 60s during the day, chillier at night. Today, however, the forecast is for colder air to move in from Canada, bringing the chance of frost, even here on the ridge.

This evening, around 7, I went out to feed the horses and felt the deepening chill in the air. It was still pretty light, and I noticed my surprise at this fact—more evidence that deep down, I’m preparing myself to accept winter. I’ve been delaying dealing with the garden, though we’ve been eating from it every day, but tonight I knew I couldn’t delay any more. I brought out some woven grocery bags and picked the pole beans, the yellow French beans curled into Cs and the purple and green Rattlesnake beans—new this year—hanging straight and full. I put the squash into separate bags—small yellow crookneck, golden patty pan, a few small delicata, and three huge zucchini. I went to the greenhouse and moved all the tomato plants that I had left around the outside of the greenhouse into the greenhouse with the more privileged plants, then went back to the house and ran three five-gallon buckets full of hot water to keep the edge off the chill in the greenhouse. Then I went up on the deck and brought in the pots of herbs and the still-flowering geraniums and covered the tomato plants I had to leave outside with a large sheet of clear plastic. I looked around at the pots of flowers on the deck: deep purple and pale yellow petunias, marigolds, orange and pale blue and purple and yellow pansies, lobelia, verbena, lupine. Some of it will take a light frost. Maybe it won’t frost at all—we’ve been lucky so far. But there was frost on the grass in places at the university this morning as I made my way to class, and my toes were cool in my sandals.

We are nearly ready after this lovely reprise of summer. Yesterday we picked up the last of our year’s supply of hay from the Mayo fields. The bales were paper-dry and light enough to make the job of stacking easy. The sun slanted on the field, we saw a family walking along the farm road with a stroller, and Jeter the poodle had a grand time running through the open space to greet the walkers, the other trucks, and us in our separate trucks. Tonight, the new hay gave off a bittersweet scent, rich with the stored sunlight in each blade that will warm Mattie and Sam’s bellies through the coldest season.

Later tonight, we watched a short film on PBS about the poet William Stafford. I don’t know how this all fits together, except to see Stafford’s face in the film and to hear his voice and the voices of others reading his poems reminded me of how much his poems have worked their way into my sensibility. He had a way of looking sideways that included rather than excluded the viewer, and he was one who proved Dickinson’s point that “the mind is wider than the sky.” In this balance point of the seasons, finding Stafford seemed both reassuring and invigorating. He was the teacher, after all, who told student writers that if they didn’t like what they had written, to “lower your standards.” He was one who wrote poems at conferences and gave them away. I remember years ago meeting him on a path at the university when he was staying in student apartments as a visiting writer. I was a graduate student, and somehow our schedules dovetailed so that he would be returning at the same time I was headed to class. The path to the center of campus led through a small grove of birch trees, and that is the point where our paths would cross. He would nod and smile as if he knew me and wanted to share in that nod and the twinkle of his glance the secret of joy in that moment. I don’t remember if we spoke. It may have been this time of year—at least I imagine there were yellow birch leaves making the path golden.

So now we head into the reflective time of year. By the weekend, I will have given up all resistance and will have picked the tomatoes. We will pull the carrots and dig the potatoes and decide the best way to store the three purple cabbages we have left in the garden. I will be sad that these beautiful plants that I have tended from seeds will freeze. Mattie and Sam will get in a few more rides, or Mattie will; Sam is on rest while he heals from his foot and back soreness (more on that in another post).

And winter, for me, is the time for writing, as Stafford reminds me. I like to think he would have appreciated how much growing plants, building the soil, tending and riding the horses stand in for poetry in the summer months. Or even more, how poetry stands in for and can barely show the surface of the richness of these things.

I hear the clatter of the wind chimes outside on the deck. The window is dark. The season has turned, just like that.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

September 18, 2010

After a three-week rainy period in August, we have been enjoying a long sunny fall these past few weeks. The leaves turned so gradually from green to gold to tawny orange, that it’s been hard to note the time when the turn began or shifted from one phase to another. The temperatures have gone up to the seventies every day, at least in some places. And, knock on wood, there has been no frost in the garden yet.

We are scrambling with winter chores, but the bright days and warm air make it hard to keep the sense of urgency we get when we are haying or cutting wood after a bite of frost. Today we had our friend Steve Sayer come out to wire the back Arctic entry, which will double as a tack room once we finish the insulation and inner walls. I spent time in the corral, working on my new manure composting bins, based on a design I found on the Horses for Clean Water website.

The tomato plants in the greenhouse are still green and putting out flowers. The vines are heavy with green tomatoes, still ripening. If I can time it right, I’ll leave them out there till just before the first hard frost—lengthening the season with a space heater for a week if need be. Then I’ll pick the tomatoes and store them in newspaper in a dark place to ripen. We may have them till November, if we’re lucky. The lemon cukes are still producing fuzzy, pale yellow round cucumbers that taste so delicate and faintly of lemon. The peppers, all the varieties we grew this year, are turning a hot red, long commas and parentheses of them dangling from arrowhead shaped leaves.

So much to do, but I feel the season in pause. I long for it to stay into November—as if I were longing for the place I live to shift and become central California or Provence. I often feel as if the change of seasons here in the Interior is not so much a change of light—though it very much is—as a slippage of geography. In summer, we slip south, so that Alaska may actually be where it appears on some maps—somewhere west of Catalina Island. And by fall, we’re chugging steadily back north again to nestle in under the Arctic Circle in time for snow, the aurora, ice fog—I’ll stop at that. It doesn’t bear too much thinking about, though it does bear preparation.

The horses are growing in winter coats. Sam’s coat is an inch long or more by now. Mattie’s is shorter, but velvety and dark, almost dappled. They approve of trucks turning up the driveway with loads of hay.

As for me, I am tired after a day shoveling manure and loading hay. The moon is a pale oval, like a smooth oyster shell dangling over the mountains to the south. After the long summer of gardening and riding, I have plenty to think about and write here. But the moon coaxes my sleepiness. It will have to wait till tomorrow.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 3, 2010

Camp Joy

I haven’t written enough here about my ever-evolving love and admiration for the tomato plant. As I learn more each year about them, their soil requirements, the care and tending of the plant, I’m struck by how resilient and beautiful they are. Each plant has its own leaf pattern, so that I am beginning to be able to tell the varieties apart by looking at the zigzag of dents on the leaves. Last year’s favorite, Chianti Rose, is a potato-leaf plant, with smooth-edged leaves like large green arrowheads. The Roma, on the other hand has a more complex, almost frilly pattern of dents that all together give the plant a lacy look in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes and I go way back. In fact, when I was quite young, I didn’t like them much; the acid juice was too tart for my taste. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then, when I was turning twelve, we moved to house on a farm whose farmer planted acres of beefsteak tomatoes. By this time of year, the plants were sprawling viny bushes of dark green leaves with tomatoes ripening under them. The tomatoes he grew were larger than my hand, firm and dark red, and they sliced into earthy, sweet, sour, slightly salty rounds that we ate with salt. I have a memory of sitting under the leaves on the tan-orange earth, cool in the heat of summer—but that may be a false memory. I would have been too big to do something like that, though I might have imagined what it would be like to hide there.

We picked a bushel to can each summer. The canning took days, at least in my memory. My mother and I would blanch the tomatoes, dipping them in boiling water briefly and pulling them out just as the skin began to split and curl back. We put them in a colander in the sink and, one by one, peeled the now loose skin from the soft tomato flesh. By the end of the session our hands would be burning from the acid juice, and I would swear I never wanted to see another tomato. I have not canned one since, in any case.

Now, with the greenhouse and a sunny spot on the deck, I’m growing tomatoes on my own terms. A few years ago, I would buy a few plants at a local greenhouse to plant in pots on the deck. When we built the greenhouse, though, I began to order tomato seeds in winter, plant around spring break and nurture the little plants till they could be planted in five-gallon buckets in the greenhouse in summer. I’ve learned a lot—temperature matters, for example, and lots of water. In the master gardener class last year, I learned that tomatoes cannot live on horse manure alone. And I’ve learned to appreciate the unusual variety of tomato plants.

This year, I’ve planted Pompeii Romas, Chianti Rose, Sungold cherry tomatoes, and an heirloom variety of cherry, Camp Joy. Besides that, I bought three of my favorite from two years ago, Black Krim, which has a fruit that looks nearly bruised, blackish red, with a soft sweet taste. A friend gave me some pear tomatoes, some Cherokee Purple, and Stupice.

After a few weeks of neglect, today I paid attention to the Camp Joy tomatoes growing on the deck. When I first transplanted them there, they were still in small pots and had exhausted the nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil. The leaves were yellowing and had a reddish rust color on them. I transplanted them into five-gallon pots, two or three to a pot, planting them in composted manure, potting soil (from last year) and a bit of fish bone meal and dolomite lime. After a week or two, they still looked pitiful, but there was green growth at the tops. Then the rain hit for a couple weeks, then the past few days of hot sun. By this weekend the entire planting was rich green and small green tomatoes clung to each one.

I’m thinking about all this, because, today, I took an hour or so to prune suckers from each of the tomatoes on the deck. I tied the tops to the stakes or cages, admiring how the leaves were green, even the lower ones that had been so pale only weeks before. It’s hard to trim the suckers, side shoots that look so promising and green, but suck nutrients away from the growing tomatoes themselves. Some of the suckers I cut looked like tiny tomato plants—beautiful frilly leaves, the promise of flowers—but I was ruthless. The sun warmed my arms and back as I worked. Small birds (and yellowjackets) swooped through the air. I could smell the lemon-earth smell of tomato where I had cut the tiny branches of the suckers. When I was done, the plants looked airy and the sun shone through the leaves, a bright green light.

Tomorrow, the greenhouse till, little by little, all the plants are tended and happy and can use what’s left of summer to grow enough tomatoes to tempt me to can again.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

July 18, 2010

What the Thunder Said

Summer is slipping by here in the Interior. Spring came early so that we itched to have our gardens planted before it was mid-May, even knowing that the last frost could still hit by the first of June. But it didn’t and we got our usual bright June weather in May, our hot July temperatures in June, and now, mid-July, August’s rain. Even our short summer seems to be speeding by so fast we don’t know how to keep up. There are blueberries for the picking on some hills; they’re green on others. Some gardens have zucchini, some only flowers. We’ve had days of rain between glorious dry heat—haying weather, if it lasts long enough.

Last weekend, we were out at Quists’ again, picking up three pickup loads of first cutting hay from the field. This hay was dry and bright and we only got enough to stack two layers in the hay barn so that each layer had one side exposed to air and could finish drying thoroughly. It rained fitfully after we finished loading the hay, but we grilled sausages and ate a salad from the garden sitting out on the deck while Mattie and Sam munched their new hay below us in the corral. At night, we could smell the sweet grass smell of the hay drying in the barn.

This weekend we were supposed to get more hay from the Mayos’ field, near the farm where Trish and I ride on Thursdays. By Thursday, however, the clouds had thickened, and by the start of the lesson we were spattered with warm rain that lasted the whole hour. I have been planning to ride in a small show next weekend with the Horsemasters and hoped to ride Sam this afternoon to start ramping up for the weekend. But, as I was raking manure from the corral, the clouds blew in and the rain rattled through the trees. Ira and Mike headed for the house, but I stayed behind, gathering up the tools and putting things away that might get wet.

I headed for the greenhouse. I’m still doing triage transplanting of tomatoes into larger pots, trying to get all the ones I can fit and can’t give away into kitty litter containers with holes drilled in the bottoms. The rest, I at least want to get into pots one size larger so that they thrive till I can find them homes. I never give up on plants I’ve started from seed. I had plenty to do while I waited out the rain.

I stayed in the greenhouse for a few hours, mixing manure and a purchased garden mix of peat and sand. I added fish bone meal and dolomite lime and mixed it all together with some of last year’s dirt to put in the pots. As I worked, up to my elbows in dirt, the rain stopped and the sun came out and sparkled on the tomato leaves where I had sprayed them with the hose. At one point, I stepped out to check the sky and the corral to see if I might still ride Sam on good footing. As I looked up at the ridge behind the house, I saw a bank of gray cloud sliding across the sky, dimming the light. Below the dark cloud were wisps of white cloud like a mist rising—except falling below the deeper gray. They were moving quickly, curling back on themselves, fraying apart, and skimming the top of the trees. There was a sound like falling gravel from up the hill; the leaves on the willows began to shiver; then the rain hit.

At first it was just hard enough to drive me back into the greenhouse. Then the rattle became harder and tiny bits of hail fell with the water. Then pebbles of white ice, fast and thick, the sound like a train clattering across the greenhouse roof. I leaned out the door to check some plants I had staged there, and I grabbed a small Sungold tomato to bring back inside. Sam stood in front of his shed, sideways to it, as close as he could get to shelter without being right under the racket. Mattie huddled back against the back wall of her side of the shed.

Lightning cracked the air. Thunder shook the ground. I stood in the doorway worried about my lettuce, peas, beans, shouting, “No fair! No fair!”

It went on for an hour or so, loud then soft then loud again. I planted all the heirloom tomatoes my friend Cindy gave me and a few of the Chianti Rose slicers—all in their square buckets for the rest of summer now. Then I went back to triage transplanting more Romas and Chiantis.

Then the sun broke through. The corral was deep in water and mud. The tall spruces on the hill dripped, and the air felt thick with moisture. The day was over by then; the opportunity to ride, gone. The horses came out and stood facing south, downhill, heads down. The storm had exhausted us, thrilled us, left us to rest up for tomorrow.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

June 30, 2010

Rainy days now that the solstice is past.  We’re so greedy for light here in the Interior that we grumble about rain after three days of cloudy skies, even though the garden needs it and is drinking it up, transforming it into green.  We want sun in summer to make up for all the dark days of December and January.  We store up vitamin D—some sunny days I can feel it fizzing there under my skin, like a stockpile of caffeine saved for later.

But now it’s raining and gray.  Sam stands muddy in the corral, thinking up mischief.  He’s rolled and the freckles in his white coat blur beneath the gray mud crusted over his coat.  When the wind blows—or sometimes for no reason—he startles and bolts across the corral, while Mattie, on her side of the fence, breaks into the running walk, her fourth gait.

I’ve been in the greenhouse, transplanting tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers.  As they move from smaller pots to their final kitty litter buckets or five gallon buckets, the greenhouse first looks orderly, then crowded.  I’m giving away plants as fast as I can, but then another problem arises.  As I give away plants, I also give away dirt and I’m about to run out of last year’s potting soil, even mixed with this year’s composted manure.  Strange as it seems, I now need to buy potting soil to mix with the manure in order to have enough for all my plants.

Still, rainy afternoons in the greenhouse are pleasant, with their own rhythm.  I bring a go cup of hot tea with lemon and honey, then dig my arms up to the elbows in dirt, mixing last year’s soil, this year’s manure compost, some dolomite lime and fish bone meal.  All the while, I’m thinking of the meal it will provide the plants and how they, in turn, will provide meals for us.  In fact, in the greenhouse, separated from the phone, the radio, the computer—just the drip of rain on the fiberglass roof, and the sound of Sam walking by the corral fence, checking on what I’m up to—every part of this life makes sense.  I dig in the manure that Mattie and Sam produce from the hay we load out of our neighbors’ fields, thinking of tomatoes, so sweet and tart.  It’s not a perfect cycle—I have to buy more dirt after all, and I pay for the hay.  But it’s a cycle with its satisfactions.

And there are other satisfactions of life in the Interior.  Moments ago, I went to the back door, headed out to feed the horses, when I noticed something on the railing on the back stairs landing.  A Boreal owl, slatey brown, speckled with white.  It swiveled its head to look at me, yellow eyes that looked wide with surprise from the circle of feathers radiating out from each eye.  It didn’t move, but contemplated me, and I it.  Then it swiveled its head around, staring down at the wild strawberries that grow there.  I had time to find a camera and take one photo before it tilted its head down intently, fidgeted a little, then spread its wings to float down to land on a vole, nibbling on a strawberry.

I went out on the landing.  I could see the owl there behind the delphinium leaves, his head turned to look at me once again.  Then he gathered his wings and brushed the air and soared over to land on the cab of the truck.

I’ll keep an eye out for him again.  He’s too small to be a danger to my skittish new cat, but I’m glad for his help with the vole population.  Maybe I’ll get beets and carrots this year, not just the tops.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

May 26, 2010

We’ve made the transition from breakup to summer with a mere nod to spring.  Here in the Interior, we go from bleak to blossoms suddenly as the light increases every day.  Today I noticed purple wildflowers blooming along the road where there was nothing—not even a hint of green–yesterday.  On the bank behind the house, something yellow and lavish that I planted three years ago is blooming among the rocks.  By the horse barn, I saw the first bluebells, purple in the bud, then a sweet far-sky blue as they bloom.  The leaves are almost fully out and flashing in the sun.

And there are other signs of summer.  Mosquitoes buzz the horses during the night, sometimes annoying them so much that they begin to gallop around the corral.  I’ve taken to putting their mosquito mesh blankets on them at night.  And with the mosquitoes come those mosquito-eaters, yellowjackets.  Now the heavy queens hover in the willows, along the bank, in the eaves of the greenhouse, looking for a nesting place.  Now is the time to trap them and prevent the colonies to come, but the queens don’t seem interested in our elaborately baited traps, going, instead, for tomato plants, the manure pile, or the leaves of willows.   We will need to find the nests as they’re built and spray them down in the early morning or at night when it’s cool.  Except we no longer have real night until about 1AM, for an hour or two.  A few years ago, we had the worst infestation ever.  People all across the Interior were getting stung and having allergic reactions.  I hope that we don’t go through this again. A late frost or a week of heavy rain would knock them back, but those are things not to be desired.

Meanwhile, the greenhouse is filling with tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, squash.  I’ve started my cutting lettuce and zukes and crookneck squash, too, and the purple broccoli, which I’m a sucker for the idea of, though I’ve not yet gotten it through the growing season.

Sam and Mattie are sleek and glossy.  Mattie always looks like she’s made of polished metal at this point in the season.  Her coat is still nearly black and it shines.  Later in summer she will bleach out to dark bay with a few dark dapples along her sides.  She also has begun to get more flecks of gray, so that she may become a dark roan at some point.

I’m much tireder this year than last, coming off an intense school year feeling so behind in my gardening and having the sense already that summer could slip right through my fingers.  I have an ambitious riding schedule set for me and Mattie and Sam (with Trish or Casey, this year).  I hope we can do it all.

I have to admit, though, that events in the world shadow my joy at summer.  As I plan to trailer my horses around town in my clunker truck, I carry the image in my mind of oil gushing into the Gulf waters, unstoppable, all the beaches and bayous I spent time in during my years in Mississippi gunked up with oil.  I want to be responsible for my little corner, to not add to the troubles of the world, but in the troubles resulting from oil, we are all implicated.  And face compromises.  To have the horse manure that nourishes the gardens of many of my “green” friends, I have to drive to the hay field, pick up the hay that has been tended by a tractor, and drive it back.  Something as earth-bound as riding a horse is also implicated in the consequences we all face as a result of using oil.  The yellowjackets, warm, dry-weather-loving, may also be a consequence of a warming planet—or they could just be in a cycle.

I don’t know the answer to this, though I know scientists at the university who throw all their mental energy into finding out.  For me, adding composted manure to last year’s greenhouse dirt, transplanting tomatoes, turning manure into the raised garden beds, and planting the seeds that can grow directly in the ground is how I deal with it.  It’s all a symbiotic system—living things: horses, plants, people—support and benefit each other.  Each time I enter that system with all its beauties, I feel renewed, a small counter to the ugliness of what’s happening in the Gulf and elsewhere.

As I finish this, I hear rain on the metal roof.  I just came in from the deck, where I moved the deck chairs under the overhang of the roof.  Off to the east, there’s already a rose color in the high clouds, and the sky to the south is slatey blue.  I could see out across the river to the flats beyond, rich with green and darker green.  The air smells sharp with new rain.  A robin sings, perhaps one of the pair that has nested on the beam above our window.  The sound of the rain is soothing, even though I don’t yet have the garden planted—we’re still a week from the last frost date here.  I’m glad to be in the Interior in summer, yellowjackets notwithstanding.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 18, 2010

Still waiting for green, though the air is warm again after a few chilly days and a freak hailstorm on Thursday.   Today, a Chinook wind blew in sixty-degree weather or, at least, the mid to high fifties.   In the sun, it felt like summer though the ground is still frozen just beneath the surface and we still have half a yard full of snow.  Out on the Tanana, a lead is opening up, dark and sleek in the punchy white ice.  Nothing moving yet, just the ever-widening black patch of water.  The willows are fluffing out their catkins, pussywillows.  I think of cutting some sticks of willow for the living room, but, when I think about doing that, I’m usually on the way from one thing to another—back to the house to get the Cowboy Magic for Sam’s tail or off to the greenhouse for more four-inch pots, as I am just starting to transplant the first flat of seedlings.

Today, Trish came up to work with Sam again.  She lunged him after we took another bushel of hair out of his coat, then we brought him over to Mattie’s side of the corral—the larger flatter side that doubles as a small arena—and got out the saddle.  Sam is a professional horse.  I often think he may have been a circus horse.  He stood stock-still in the morning sun while we fussed with him.  Finally, he was saddled and Trish got on.  She walked him around the corral, getting to know him.  He moved willingly, none of the usual feet planted stubbornness he used to exhibit back in the early days.  She seemed happy, and so did he.  It should be a good summer for Sam with three of us doting on him.

As for Mattie, it may be that some of our long-running issues are becoming resolved.  She’s trotting pretty reliably at the end of the longe line now, and stood for the saddle and for mounting today—her first ride of the spring.  We headed off around the corral and she trotted, leg yielded, trotted in small circles—in short, she remembered everything and it was gratifying.

There’s almost no ice left in the corral now and the sand drained quickly.  The yard is soggy and scattered with wood chips from the firewood chopping area.  The grass is flattened and brown.  We have chickadees and juncos at the bird feeder.   I’m listening for robins and thrushes in the woods and the rattle of a woodpecker.  We’re still a long way from greenup, but I have three flats of starts to transplant: tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and delicata squash.  I took them out for an afternoon in the greenhouse, and managed to transplant some of the cucumbers today into three-inch pots.

I heard a report that a friend’s spouse, out cutting wood, saw the year’s first mosquito.

Tonight, around ten thirty, a sliver of moon hung low in the sky, fuzzy through a thin layer of cloud.  With night, the chill in the air returns, but the light lingers longer in the sky now and there’s a slatey light on everything.  We could still get snow, but all our restlessness calls out for true spring followed soon by summer.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

Poetry Challenge 43

March 30, 2010

Warmer and warmer days here.  Yesterday we put in a few extra hours cleaning the corral as a winter’s worth of snow-buried manure emerges, despite our best efforts to rake it up throughout the winter.  Today, the footing was all packed ice and punchy snow, so the horses get extended holiday.

Today, in class, we discussed William Carlos Williams and the phrase “no ideas but in things.”  So what ideas are the things around you revealing or concealing?  For me the emerging manure is compost-to-be, then tomatoes or lettuce or yellow crookneck squash–and then a delicious meal.

So write about a thing that you suddenly notice, now that it’s spring.  Don’t think about it too much; just write about the object.   Then read it and see what else has attached itself to it.

Post your poem as a comment and I’ll post it here.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 10, 2010

Spring Break

A week’s respite from the intensity of spring semester; I am getting time for real life.

This morning, as I write, the sun is warm on my back through the glass door to the deck.  Recently, it’s been high enough in the sky to clear the ridgeline behind us, so the corral is in sun till late afternoon, and it’s light enough to work outside till nearly seven and later each day.  This time of year sneaks up on us—but all seasons do in the north; they’re so extreme and transition so quickly.  Now, during this fallow week, I planned to get out every day to work with Mattie and Sam, but it’s Wednesday already, and I’ve only been out with them twice, and I can already feel the week slipping away.

On the shelf by the south-facing window are this year’s seeds, sorted by planting date, and stored in those clear plastic shells that cinnamon rolls from Lulu’s come home in.  Yesterday, I washed the old flats from the greenhouse, and today I will plant the first seeds of the year: Chianti Rose, Pompeii Roma, Sungold, and Camp Joy tomatoes.  Later in the week, I’ll plant the Little Prince eggplant—trying over on an unsuccessful experiment from last year.  Although the ground will be covered with snow till well into April or, if we get a few good March snowstorms, May, my mind is full of the joy of green things to come.

I imagine lettuce—I plant a cutting mix and a red and green romaine mix—the speckled leaves, the russet leaves, the frilled and smooth leaves, glowing as the sun slants through them in the evening. I imagine pulling carrots—I’m trying King Midas this year, a long variety, with the horses in mind.  I miss the taste of them, sweet, with just a hint of garden grit with the crunch of the root.

Mattie and Sam still stand in the sun each morning to warm their coats—it was fifteen below this morning.  In the afternoon, it will warm above zero and I’ll head out to groom them and do some longeing and groundwork.  I imagine I’m working them towards fitness for summer, but know that the weather, the cold, the packed snow melting in April to a dangerous slickness, the work ahead to finish the semester will all compete with my intentions toward them.  We have an ambitious lesson and clinic schedule set up for summer, including a three day Centered Riding clinic.  Between now and May, they need to be fit enough to take hour long lessons and the trail rides I hope to go on.  And so do I.

So, now, I’m on the couch, Jeter the poodle curled on his end, writing this instead of grooming, longeing, planting, dancing.  The sun has moved farther along the window now.  On NPR, there’s a discussion on the role of poetry in our lives in the 21st century.  There’s more coffee to drink.  Spring is still a dream, but a lovely dream.  We gather our energy now for the work ahead.

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